TA’s first Tennis Regional since ‘95 pits Knights against Fort Defiance

When the Turner Ashby girls tennis coaching position opened up before this spring, it was jokingly suggested to assistant cross country coach Karen Clark by one of TA's runners that she should go for the spot.

Clark replied to that idea with a laugh.

But she didn't dismiss it entirely.

"I'm really not a tennis person," Clark said. "… I just really felt as though the Lord was just making clear, 'I want you to step out of your comfort zone.' It was a huge step. It was extremely uncomfortable because I don't know tennis.

"But, 'Apply leadership skills I've given you, Karen,' is what I felt him tell me. 'I want you to step into this, I'll go with you every step of the way and I will bless you,' and obviously He has."

A regional tournament bid perhaps seemed like a far-off miracle of divine intervention for the Knights in recent years, but it's now a reality.

Turner Ashby handled Broadway 5-1 on Wednesday in Bridgewater in the Conference 29 tournament consolation match, clinching a spot in the 3A West Region tournament — the TA girls tennis program's second regional appearance and first since 1995.

"To say we're excited is an understatement," said Clark, who took over the program in February. "In the back of my head it was a goal, but in some ways I just wanted to survive, see what I had. I did write it down that that was one of my goals. It felt pretty pie in the sky since Turner Ashby didn't win more than two games for the past 10 years."

Turner Ashby (13-5) will venture to Fort Defiance for the 3A West Region matchup on May 20.

A year ago, the Knights were handed a first-round exit from the Conference 29 tournament at Monticello. But now, Allison Mace and Brynn Kiser have their senior seasons extended a little longer.

"I knew we would be strong," Mace said. "I didn't expect it to be to this extent, honestly, but I'm so grateful. I don't think I could've had a better senior year."

Mace, the Knights' No. 1 singles player, enjoyed a 6-3, 6-0 win over Broadway sophomore Sydney Coffman on Wednesday.

The Knights' No. 2 through No. 5 singles players — Kiser and sophomores Carter Young, Emma Nesselrodt and Malena Hoover, respectively — also picked up victories to help TA advance.

"The past three years I've played have been a tough ride, but here we are," said Kiser, who beat the Gobblers' Aspen Gorman 6-0, 6-0. "It's been coming for a while now. We practice hard. We play hard, and we wanted this win."

And the Knights are making program history with a coach who isn't a tennis junkie — yet.

Clark, who said she earned a doctorate degree in leadership a couple of years ago, has read more tennis books than anyone Kiser has known.

"I've learned more about tennis in the past three months than I ever learned in the first 58 years of my life combined," Clark said. "I still have a lot to learn. I will be the first to admit it, and I'll continue to learn."

But Clark's adjustment to the sport hasn't been a disadvantage to the players, Mace said, because of how the players develop from competing against one another.

"And she's been a coach before, so she knows how to motivate us in a positive way," Mace said.

Mace characterized the season overall as a "learning experience" for the Knights, who fended off cockiness after wins, despite years of struggling, and learned to grow from each victory.

Clark praised the Knights for how they've supported one another throughout the season and bought into the culture the new coach wanted to establish.

"I think everybody's stepped up, filled the role that they needed to fill so we can make it to where we are today," Kiser said. "I think we did it as a team effort.

"… We know [the regional tournament is] going to be tough, but we're going to work hard, do our best. That's all we can do."

The Gobblers, meanwhile, finished the season 8-10, although they'll be represented when the Conference 29 singles and doubles tournaments begin Monday at Spotswood.

The Gobblers had three freshmen in their top six this spring, but 11th-year coach Neil Summers described it as a "fun" season.

He pointed to how Coffman "worked her tail off" over the offseason to become Broadway's top singles player this season, and he believes the freshmen who earned a taste of the varsity level this spring will work to improve for next year.

"I was pleasantly surprised with how well our team played, especially being young," Summers said. "To see the young girls develop, I'm really excited about what the future might hold for this team."

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